Tourism has proven to be Cuban lifesaver
But it is a cornerstone of a corrupt dictatorship
By D'Arcy Jenish – Business Edge
Published: 12/22/2006 – Vol. 6, No. 26
This is the time of year when the travel sections of the Saturday
newspapers start to become thick with ads for packaged holidays to warm
and sunny southern locales. Winter-worn Canadians can take their pick of
Florida, the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands, Trinidad, Venezuela, Costa
Rica, Mexico and many other places.
In recent years, though, Cuba has become the destination of choice.
Canadians love Cuba. And the Cuban government loves Canadians.
On Nov. 29, the country's Ministry of Tourism reported that the number
of visitors had exceeded two million for the third consecutive year. As
usual, Canada was the No. 1 source of visitors.
More than 600,000 Canadians travel to the island annually and, in truth,
Cuba has its attractions. Wonderful beaches. Warm water. Verdant
mountains. Lovely Spanish-style architecture. Friendly people. And let's
not forget the prices. Cuba has been cheaper than many of its competitors.
The vast majority of those tourists, virtually all of them in fact, will
stay in hotels or resorts that are owned and rigidly controlled by
Cuba's Communist government. Most will have little or no contact with
Indeed, the government practises what outside experts call "tourist
apartheid," an official policy aimed at keeping foreign visitors apart
from its citizens. "Cubans are not allowed in tourist hotels unless they
have special permission or work there," says Archibald Ritter, a
Carleton University economist who specializes in the study of developing
countries. "They are not allowed to stay in those hotels even if they
have the money. They are not allowed to walk in the front door."
More than 100,000 Cubans work in the tourist industry and the ministry
issues strict guidelines to regulate their dealings with the outsiders.
They are to limit their relations with foreigners "to those that are
They are "to be vigilant at all times of any deed or attitude that could
be harmful to the state."
They are to refuse "remuneration, gifts, donations, accommodation or
services that go against dignity and respect and create commitments …
" Tourists with a social conscience might argue that the dollars they
spend go into government coffers to provide essential services.
Therefore, the argument goes, they are contributing to the well-being of
There is some truth to this. Tourism is now Cuba's largest source of
It brings in US$2 billion annually – big bucks in a US$40-billion economy.
And Ritter says that the government spends the money on health care,
education, infrastructure and other basic necessities.
But nobody should be under any illusions about Cuba's tourist industry.
It is one of the cornerstones of an aging and corrupt dictatorship that
has ruined the island's economy, has oppressed, persecuted and
impoverished its own people, and has no objective other than its own
In the merry days of the Soviet Union, Fidel Castro and his comrades had
no interest in tourism, not when Moscow was paying higher than world
prices for Cuba's declining sugar production and selling oil at less
than world prices.
This fantasy disintegrated with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron
Curtain. Cuba's gross domestic product plummeted 35 per cent between
1989 and 1993 and the economy was thrown into crisis.
The government experimented with limited reforms by legalizing
self-employment in about 150 occupations and it began to develop the
Tourism has been a roaring success and probably saved the government
itself from collapse.
Now the limited free-market reforms are being rolled back. Since October
2004, the government has stopped issuing new licences for entrepreneurs
who want to try their hand at one of the approved occupations. In June
2005, more than 2,000 existing licences were revoked. Even as it
squeezes the private sector, government enterprises are incapable of
delivering adequate supplies of food, clothing and household goods,
which has created a thriving black market.
Meanwhile the repression and persecution continue. Reporters Without
Borders calls Cuba the second-largest jailer of journalists in the world.
As of June this year, at least 315 Cubans were behind bars for political
crimes, according to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National
By any rational measure, Cuba's socialist experiment, now approaching
its 50th anniversary, has failed abysmally. It survives thanks to the
stubbornness and stupidity of a feeble, old dictator and his pampered
henchmen, and tourists from a free and prosperous nation who are
prepared to look the other way in order to enjoy cheap southern vacations.
(D'Arcy Jenish can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)